Watchdog Commission Seeks Prosecution for Local Agency’s Use of Tax Dollars to Campaign for Bond Measure

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) requested December 20 that the state attorney general and local district attorneys prosecute the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system for misusing public funds to campaign in favor of a local bond measure on the 2016 ballot.

“We want to send a warning and not create a precedent that it’s a minor ‘slap on the wrist’ kind of thing,” FPPC Chair Alice Germond said, explaining why her agency is asking for criminal prosecution in addition to the $7,500 fine that the FPPC imposed on BART for failing to report the campaign spending.

Voters approved Measure RR in November 2016, with 70.53 percent in favor of the $3.5 billion general obligation bond to repair infrastructure and ostensibly relieve congestion and improve access to the train system. The bond will be repaid through higher property taxes on property owners in the transit district.

The FPPC found that “BART published two videos on YouTube that constituted advocacy in support of Measure RR,” and noted that the videos included “inflammatory and argumentative statements.” The videos concluded with the tagline “it’s time to rebuild,” which the FPPC said “indicated a clear connection to and promotion of Measure RR.”

Additionally, the FPPC found that BART “utilized its social media presence in furtherance of its campaign to support Measure RR.” Like the videos, BART’s social media posts and text messages about the bond measure constituted political advertising and should have included the “paid for by” disclosure statement required in all political ads.

Finally, the FPPC found that since BART spent more than $1,000 on campaigning, it was legally required to file campaign statements and reports to the state, but failed to do so.

While the agency could have fined BART as much as $33,374, it settled on the much lower fine based on BART’s cooperation with the FPPC’s investigation, the relatively small amount spent on the campaign activities in question, and the absence of any evidence of an intent to conceal, deceive or mislead.

The FPPC also voted to draft a letter to the Legislature seeking authority to censure public agencies that use tax dollars for campaigning.

In October, CalTax filed a complaint asking the FPPC to investigate Los Angeles County’s use of tax dollars to campaign for Measure W, a parcel tax that was approved on the November 6 ballot. Under the guise of “educational outreach” to voters, the county budgeted $11.2 million to produce videos and campaign mailers urging voters to support Measure W. One of the “educational” videos never mentioned that Measure W is a parcel tax. Another referred to a “parcel tax to modernize LA county’s outdated water system,” but gave no information about how the tax would be calculated, or how much it would cost county residents.

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